She Said Her Horse Was Pensive.

L. and her gelding, Andante, are boarders here. I always ask how the ride went as they return to the barn. One day L. tilted her head and said he’d complained about her hands. Horses are always right about hands. It’s frustrating when you listen to your horse and hear something you don’t like. Recently, I asked about the ride as they untacked. Pensive, she said, after a pause. It wasn’t a word she’d used before, but it might be the best description ever, if you’re a horse.

This Belgian-TB cross has been at my barn for most of his life. He was insecure in the beginning, terrified of vets, and sometimes spooky under saddle. L. had her fair share of unplanned dismounts. Like most horses, he didn’t start out steady. It takes time for a horse and rider to find their true stride. It’s been my good fortune to watch them over the years, the third person in the arena. It’s us learning from him now.

Some folks believe that draft breeds are slow, stubborn, or maybe not as bright as other breeds. Pensive is the right word. Andante is a thinker, he likes taking the time to reason things out. He might move slowly at first, seem to sound it out in his head almost. He gets quiet but he isn’t distracted or being evasive. He’s relaxed and focused; in a mental place where he is able to learn. We know that when we give him the time he needs to be comfortable with something new, he is responsive and light, often volunteering even more than we ask. Going forward, he remembers it with reliable calmness.

It isn’t just draft breeds who like time to think. It’s light drafts like Fjords, Friesians, and Vanners. Ponies and Appaloosas are on the list, and donkeys and mules are famous for hating to be rushed. We think they’re stubborn or hard-headed, often giving a second louder cue just as they were about to do what was asked, but the second cue almost feels like a correction for answering, so they go quiet, losing confidence.

Some breeds like Arabians and Thoroughbreds seem to like to answer quick, almost as if they are guessing and want to get it over with, but if the horse is tense in his body, isn’t that answer slick with anxiety? Wouldn’t we get a better answer if we pretended they were draft breeds and encouraged a slow answer in the beginning, also?

How much time is reasonable for a horse to respond to a cue? I notice I pause in my mind now to consider my own question. I pause as I form my words because I don’t want to blather out my first thought or leap to a false conclusion. I hope to be clear and give the right answer. I notice a certain pensiveness before I answer and I’m not the one balancing a human on my back.

Is a quicker answer from a horse the better answer? Or is the speed of a horse’s response to a request an answer in itself? If he understands what he is being asked, a horse will usually oblige willingly, even quickly by our judgment. If a horse doesn’t answer a question he knows, our first thought must be for his soundness. Reluctance is a sign of pain. Is he not answering but frozen looking to the distance? Give him time, he sees something we don’t, and repeating the cue louder isn’t going to improve our vision or make his concern go away.

Most of all, if a horse pauses in the process of learning something new, the investment in giving him time to think and volunteer an answer will engage him in the process. He will have a positive experience problem solving if we allow him the time to find the answer himself and it will build his confidence. As you wait, remember that teacher who made biology interesting or gave you a love of reading. With a nod to their patience with you, don’t assume your horse is stubborn or lazy. Seeing the worst human traits in a horse says more about our intelligence than theirs.

If we push for a fast answer and the horse freezes a bit, maybe afraid of being wrong or just nervous, it should make us wonder if the problem might not be ours. Maybe we need to learn to resist being hurried, too.

How can you tell your horse isn’t thinking? His eyes have a deathly stillness. His body feels hollow. It’s as if he is playing dead. Horses don’t think when they’re afraid.

How can you tell your horse is thinking? That’s a stupid question. I’m supposed to say there are no stupid questions, but just look at him. His eyes are soft, and his ears are inquisitive as he breathes out softly. If you cannot recognize the intelligence in a horse’s face, regardless of breed, it’s you who are stubborn or lazy or just untrainable.

A few years ago, L. and Andante were a bit stuck. I suggested perhaps it was time to evolve their groundwork, it hadn’t changed in years. L. made the routine more interesting but Andante changed things up, too. He began lifting his hoof on the mounting block, like a slow-motion pawing. We didn’t ask. In the beginning, L. moved the block to his side but then he’d turn and do it again. Soon he was stretching both legs on his own and L. was lightly scratching his coronary band. We didn’t understand at first, but he trained us. Was he resisting her ride? In a few moments, he stood square and she was in the saddle. It was more like a team pep talk. He did it at horse shows with strange mounting blocks just the same. Horse conversations are always behaviors and not words, but that doesn’t mean their body voice is less informative.

It’s been a brutally cold week in Colorado. A water tub in the turnout pen froze solid and it took help to tip it and get the huge ice cube out. It’ll take a month to melt. That night, as it was getting dark and I was bringing horses in, my toes were stinging in my warmest boots. The other horses were already slurping mush and digging into fresh hay bags. Andante was the last. I don’t use a halter; he surely knows where we’re going. On this bone-chilling night, he paused and pawed the top of the ice block. I stopped walking and turned. He lifted his huge hoof up again, and rested it, his ears forward.

As I moved to his shoulder, “Really, you want to talk now?” If horses have taught me anything it’s that dullness and impatience are the language of a lesser mind.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Anna Blake

41 thoughts on “She Said Her Horse Was Pensive.”

  1. Once again you’ve blended understanding humans and human behavior with your equine story. Either way, I love them all and will always be in awe of your ability to stick with real issues and communication.

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  2. This is one of the best!! Why does it seem no one ever “takes a moment” to realize maybe the horse “needs a moment”? Too busy being in control or in charge or the boss?
    Speaking of thinking – this one should make all of us think! Whether is a horse, or a dog or?
    Thanks, Anna

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  3. This difference in “speed” between us and horses has been one of the most lasting lessons for me – the lesson being that I go too fast. I can see how often I ask something and then quickly assume it’s not coming if it doesn’t happen immediately. And how if I simply stand there and take a breath, I’m distracted from the “goal” of my ask, long enough to see that my horse is gently responding once my impatience gets out of the way. That they are teaching me is now obvious; what was I thinking?

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  4. Gotta love Andante! Always enamored of horses but now, thanks to you Anne, I’m in awe of them. My goals for myself as a horse owner have evolved beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
    Thanks for another thought provoking read!

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  5. I’ve been living this year with a small mantra to leverage some of the upside of new habits during a pandemic: Pace, Space, Grace. Why oh why have I not taken this to Taye yet? I have added TIME to our Playe Dates. Time to get him tacked up myself instead of relying on the luck of a groom who will do it for us to keep our trainer on schedule. Time to properly stretch my body, and then his, and then ours together before we begin the work of our training with the focus and accomplishment we both enjoy. But, we all know time is not the same thing as space. And while I’ve paced myself for more time, I haven’t yet reminded myself of the space this creates…for more grace. So thank you for another stellar series of insights beautifully written. O

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  6. My friend Faaris, conceived with my oversight and born before my eyes, spent the first half of his 30 years running from shadows and perceived certain hell around every corner. The second half of his life was spent helping me appreciate that, given a moment to process my ask, he’d walk through fire for me and never blink. One of the greatest lessons of my life.

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  7. The owner of the barn where I board bought a pony whom she didn’t know was pregnant. The foal was born the night of the ice storm in VA. Everyone is in awe of baby Polly. My Arabian guy can not stop watching her. The mares have been reactive, but the geldings are just very curious. When I left the barn the other day, after turning Ryder out, I saw him standing alone at the fence line watching Polly run with her mother. He is trying to figure it out. When we were riding in the arena the other day, he kept wanting to turn and watch her. Sometimes, I just let him do that. But it was a distracting ride. He has always done surveillance for the barn, as people say. It seems Polly is now under his watch!

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  8. Oh, Andante! That lovely Italianate (well, literally Italian) musical term that indicates a moderately slow tempo. In music school we’d often categorize it as a “walking tempo”. Not too fast, not too slow. Just right.

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    • No one usually makes that connection Linda, but when he came to us he was scared and anxious naming him Andante was the best wish of confidence I could make for him..that he would move slowly and steadily 🙂

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  9. You always make me think and review and analyze what I do to my horses. Thanks for making me think and helping me to become aware of what I ask of my horse, and how I ask it.

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  10. We humans so value speed & quickness. We can miss so much. We also tend to live in the binary: ie. question/answer, that we can be absent for the process, the space in between which can be a place where conversation and learning can happen.
    Thank you for this story. I took the time to reflect on the thinkers in my life, the Fjords & Dales & ponies.

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  11. Love this extra, and needed to hear this message this week.
    Thank you, always.
    You make a difference.


    On a sidenote, your writing is just so crystal clear for me. I get the images, emotions, thumps and nudges, moments to pause….and the praise for trying. All with no wasted words.
    Grateful.

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    • Thanks, Deb. I work as hard on writing as I do learning and training, but I think they both make me better at the other one. If that makes sense. Thanks, and take all day.

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  12. When I was starting out with horses, an old cowboy friend of mine said “Whenever you’re around horses, you’re training them; even if you are unaware…….they are not”. I think he was speaking to keeping communication open through observation and patience. I’m grateful to have started out with that lens, but as an imperfect human it’s still a struggle to stay in the moment under all circumstances. I’m not worried though, the horses are consistent at pointing out the error of my ways so that I can continue to make progress. Anna, your writing is like a sermon from the church of the Holy Horse that I always look forward to attending! Thank you for inspiring me in so many ways.

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    • Wow, sounds like a church I’d go to! Thanks, Laurie. I agree that we’re always training… which I might now call listening, since I finally learned how.

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  13. Oh thank you for this. I have two donkeys, and this is so true. My now 23-year-old daughter has an Arabian and has always worked this way with him (She was 16 when we got him–how did she intuitively know?) Maybe we can give people space to be pensive too? Thank you for the gift of your writing.

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  14. Pingback: Bridles, buckle end and playing with poles – The Sound Of Hooves

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